Dancing in the limelight
This week, it’s time to revisit an old classic and revive a cottage gardening favourite, phlox
SOME plants are so familiar and have been used in gardens for such a long time that occasionally we forget to appreciate their qualities. I think phlox is one such plant that deserves a bit more of the limelight. It’s a mainstay of cottage gardening and the backbone of many beautiful perennial borders. Waist-high, it will beckon you to its delicious perfume, but will not dominate its surroundings. It’s a tall, airy plant that will also blend well with its flowering neighbours, is easy to grow and will provide lots of flowers through the summer. It’s also great for your September borders. It makes an excellent cut flower and will attract bees and butterflies to your plot. Phlox paniculata, from which we get most of our cultivars, is an American native growing wild along the eastern seaboard so it’s hardy and tough. It’s a meadow plant that likes fertile, moist soil, and this is the key to healthy phlox. Before planting, add loads of compost or well-rotted manure. This will both feed your plants and help the soil to retain moisture. A good mulch in early summer will also help keep soil damp. Powdery mildew, a fungus which appears as a whiteish powder on the leaves, is a common problem with phlox, but there are a number of measures you can take. Healthy plants sited in the right place are always more resilient to diseases, but you can also try homemade fungicides to keep it at bay. This can be a 10% solution of milk in water applied to the foliage, or a mix of baking soda and water. Good air circulation is also important as wet and humid conditions can spread the fungus. At the end of the season, cut down the foliage and destroy any infected foliage. The fungus won’t kill your plants and they will re-emerge in spring. If planted in the middle of a border, any leaves disfigured by mildew will be hidden by planting to the front of it. If you are lifting and dividing, either because the plant needs invigoration or to propagate, wait until spring as with most late-summer flowering herbaceous perennials. That said, you could get new plants in the ground now as the earth is warm and welcoming. It will give them a chance to put on some root growth before winter sets in. With their native American background, they will associate well with prairie-style plants such as ornamental grasses, veronicastrums, rudbeckias, monardas and coneflowers. As well as division, you can propagate more of these beauties via soft cuttings in early summer or root cuttings in the winter.
Many of the newer varieties won’t need staking, and a good trick to prolong the flowering season is to give them the Chelsea chop in May. This means cutting some of the stems around the end of May which will promote bushiness and stagger blooming times. And don’t forget to dead-head to maximise flowers. There’s a huge variety in colours from white to pink, salmon, oranges, reds, lilacs and blues. ‘Blue Paradise’ has gorgeous violet-blue flowers, and for pristine white, look out for ‘David.’ ‘Franz Schubert’ is an old variety with soft lilac pink flowers, named after the romantic composer. If you like a variegated leaf, ‘Harlequin’ has creamy yellow variegation with intense magenta flowers.
Phlox is easy to grow and will provide lots of flowers through the summer
For a pristine white phlox, go for the David variety
Phlox paniculata grows wild along the eastern seaboard so it’s hardy and tough
Bees are attracted to phlox plants